Ep. 283: Was Milton Right? — with Virginia Walden Ford

November 17, 2021

In this episode we hear from a champion in the school choice movement, Virginia Walden Ford, someone whose been working for our cause for many years. She tells us about her early grassroots activism, the progress she thinks the movement has made and what other work we still have to do.

Brian McGrath: Hi, welcome back to another EdChoice chats. I’m Brian McGrath, vice president of external relations at EdChoice. I’m thrilled today to have Virginia Walden Ford with us to talk about our 25 years as an organization, the Friedman Foundation and EdChoice. She has been a board member of ours since 2011, and she is a hero of the school choice movement for reasons we’ll hear from later, I’m sure. But Virginia, thanks so much for joining us.

Virginia Walden Ford: Thank you so much for having me here. It’s always a pleasure to be here with EdChoice.

Brian McGrath: It is. We have a great time anytime Virginia’s in the room. She’s educating people. She’s inspiring us. She’s sharing her story, which is so compelling, which we can talk about. But let me ask you this first question. So one of the things we’ve always believed in as an organization, whether we were the Friedman Foundation or now EdChoice was that universal school choice was the best policy to pursue for lots of different reasons. But I know you’re a supporter of universal choice. Can you talk about that a little bit? Tell us why and how you came to them.

Virginia Walden Ford: I am a supporter of universal choice. Dr. Friedman and I, years ago, talked about it and talked about how important it was for all parents, all parents, to have a say-so in how their children are educated in this country. Universal choice gives parents that freedom. And we want our parents to have their children in places they can thrive, where they can grow, where they can get whatever tools they need to be educationally successful.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, that’s what we’ve always thought too. And we’ve fought that battle for many, many years. And it seems like it’s evolved a little bit. When I first got involved in this, or if you look back at the programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, they were targeted. And now it seems like the policy preference is really to go universal, whether it be ESA, or voucher or whatnot. So I think we’ve made a lot of progress on that. You and Dr. Friedman had a relationship and a friendship that I’m sure most people don’t have any clue about. Can you talk about that a little bit with us?

Virginia Walden Ford: Oh, I delightfully talk about that. When I first started, I was a mother, part of a little rag-tag group of parents that were speaking our minds, speaking out, talking about our children, talking about what we wanted for our children, and trying to raise money to do that. And there was an event that happened. And this was my first time, I’d heard all about Dr. Friedman, I knew all about him. But never in life would you have expected me to have an opportunity to speak with him.

So we go to a potential fundraiser, maybe we raise a few dollars, and we just start using our little tiny bit of money to do flyers and stuff. And I get to the event and somebody says, “You have a telephone call.” And I go, “Why would I have a telephone call at this place? I don’t know, know anybody here.”

And I went to the phone and it was Dr. Friedman. And he said, “Virginia, I’ve been watching you. I’ve been paying attention to what you’re doing. And I just want to say, you’re doing a really good job. Just keep it up” Who can do anything else, but do a better job after having somebody confirm with what you’re doing is the best thing.

And from that point on every time I saw him, he would just chat with me and tell me how strong I was, or tell me how in his thoughts, this is what it was about. It was about the people that were going to be impacted by any kind of school choice. And just keep on fighting, and I would eventually be successful.

It became such a wonderful relationship and I felt so cared about it, and so loved, and so supported, and so encouraged. And it was almost like a familiar family, whenever I’d get a chance to speak with him. It was amazing. It was. It added more to my being able to continue to do this kind of work. I mean, who gets the opportunity to be encouraged by such a wonderful patriot? And so it was very important for where I went.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. The Friedmans were amazing, amazing power couple. I mean, I had the great fortune to be able to interact with them several times. And they always made me feel the same way. I mean, here I was some 30-something kid who just went to work for their organization and they made me feel like I was as important as the next person, the board member that they were talking to in the next room. It was amazing that they had that impact on people.

Virginia Walden Ford: It absolutely was. I mean, both of them were kind and loving and caring. My conversations certainly were more with Dr. Friedman about the work we were doing in DC, but she was always very caring. They surrounded me with the kind of love and caring that I never knew even existed outside of my little realm of the world.

Brian McGrath: Right. But you’ve also had quite a relationship with Friedman, and now EdChoice as an organization, I know you and Robert Enlow are quite close friends. Talk about the first time you got to meet with Robert or work with Robert.

Virginia Walden Ford: Well, 20, 25 years ago, the Friedman Foundation had only been around for a couple of years. So it was 23 years ago and we were preparing to support the Cleveland Supreme Court case. I was working, trying to organize some parents in DC, and we had nothing going on in DC. They just asked if I could organize parents in DC to come to the Supreme Court and rally with the parents from Cleveland and such. And Robert was a part of that, and that’s how I’ve met him.

And he was incredibly supportive. But the thing that I remember most and the thing that made us probably have this long friendship that will always be there, was that he was one of the first people that believed in me. You know, he told me 25 years ago almost, that I could do anything. That I had the backup of all these people. And don’t let anybody bother me, and don’t let anybody make me feel less than. He showed incredible respect.

And that was just what we needed at that point. We were just a little rag-tag group. Parents didn’t know what we were doing. We needed somebody to step up for us and to stand up for us. I remember one time they were doing a series of meetings. The coalition was doing this series of meetings about the DC opportunity scholarship program. I’m not a meeting person. I’d rather let’s get out in the trenches. And I told Robert, “I need to be out on the Hill with parents. We need to be talking to legislators. We need to be showing who we are.”

And he was the one that told me, “Go. Take parents to the Hill. I’ll tell you what happens in the meetings.” And that meant a lot to me. You know, Robert is one of those kind of people that always stays with you, stays in your heart. He is so passionate about the work he does, and he makes you passionate about it. It has really been a wonderful long friendship.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. You talk about the Cleveland case, which was enormously important. I think, one, from a legal standpoint, we just had to have that win. And two, it started the conversation, I think, nationally about school choice a little more than had been happening. And then shortly after that, it was the voucher program you were advocating for. And in my mind, after I’ve been looking back at all the things in our movement the last quarter century, I think that DC voucher program really kind of nationalized the conversation. So it wasn’t like, “Oh, well, it’s Iowa. Who cares?” Or, “Oh, it’s some program in Florida. Who cares?”

Somehow DC became a bigger symbol. And it strikes me that it was important to the movement. So, I know that didn’t happen overnight. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about how that evolved, and how you got involved, and how you’re still fighting it today

Virginia Walden Ford: You know, with the DC program, we knew that we wanted something different for our children. We knew we wanted something better for our children. The Cleveland program, or the Cleveland fight at the US Supreme Court showed us something different. And from that point, we were able to sit out and say, “All right, if people can do this in Cleveland, we can certainly do it in Washington, DC.” Never knowing what was in front of us. Never knowing how hard this was going to be.

But we looked at our children and we looked at what we wanted for them. And we looked at what they were not receiving in DC at that point. And we knew that we had to fight for them. Now fighting in DC unlike the states is so different. You know, you’re talking to legislators who have no vested interest in that city and we didn’t vote for them. So they have no allegiance to us.

So we had to convince members of Congress that this program was important for the District of Columbia. It’s the nation’s capital. We should be fighting, all of them should have been fighting for our children. And so that was kind our message. You know, this is DC. Yeah. I know you’re not from here, but you know, this is DC. Y’all need to fight with us. You need to fight for us. You need to look at the children in the district, say, “These kids should be better educated than anybody because it’s the nation’s capital.”

And from that point members, members of the Senate, members of the House embraced us. And once that happened and we started going around and talking more and more, what had been kind of a dream for us became a reality over time.

There was a point where we said, “You know, we could win this. We really could. And our kids would be getting a chance,” because they weren’t. So that’s what got us going. And the more people got involved around the nation, Friedman Foundation, EdChoice was really like our parent. They took care of us and they made us really believe in ourselves.

So once all that happened, we just couldn’t do anything but move forward. More and more parents entered the fight. More and more parents believed what we said. You know, we started off working with lower income families in DC, and all kind of people joined us. DC, it’s a fishbowl. So the world was watching us. And I think once we realized that then that could be used to our advantage. The world is watching us. And we also used it talking to legislators. “The world is watching y’all. You better make the right decision.”

Of course we didn’t say it like that, but that’s kind of what we were trying to say to them and it just became so amazing. I remember sitting back and watching a rally we had where I expected 20, 50 people to show up. And 300, 400 showed up and I would go, “How did we do that?” And then we realized that we weren’t the only ones that wanted best for our kids. Everybody wanted best for their children. And so the more people that joined us, the more exciting it became, and the more it became headed toward being successful.

Brian McGrath: Let me think about this two ways. What were the key arguments for, that you were telling people why you needed this? And then what was the opposition saying back then? And has it changed at all in the 25 years?

Virginia Walden Ford: Well, the opposition was saying parents in DC don’t want this. Parents in DC don’t care about the 146 private schools there are in DC. Parents are satisfied with what’s going on now. Y’all are just wrong. You’re brainwashed. You’re wrong. You’re wasting your time.

But then the folks for us were like everybody deserves a chance to go to a school where they could thrive. The private schools were excited about the possibility of having some diversity in their schools. It was just so many people that came out and said, “This something DC needs,” and started joining us. But the opposition was cruel, and they went for the jugular. They attacked the parents. That was the hardest for me to watch. And there’s no money for it. You know, at that time, Congress kind of dictated what was spent in DC, so there was no money for it.

And President Bush was the one that came up and said, “we’ll fund it a different way.” And it came out of a presidential discretionary fund initially. And so that made a difference in what was going on. But you know, we talk about it a lot, and we talk about it with joy. We talk about how wonderful it was, the end result.

But it was a hard fight, and parents were committed and dedicated. But they were embarrassed and they were talked about in negative ways. And so we had to deal with all of those kinds of things. And you know, I got death threats and it wasn’t fun. It was necessary. And so what I used to tell the parents all the time is this is hard. I know it’s hard. And I know this is hard for you all. But keep a picture of your child. There were no cell phones during those days. So you couldn’t look on your phone.

Keep a picture of your child in your pocket. And when it gets really hard, or when somebody says something to the effect that you don’t have a right to be speaking for your child, take that picture out and look at your child and will give you the courage to go on. And I did it too. I kept a little picture of William in my pocket. And when they would say negative things about us or me, I’d take that picture out. And I’d say “You are who I’m fighting for,” to the picture. I carried that picture for years. And now I carry it in my phone, that same little a picture. So it was hard to hear what people were saying because they really didn’t understand how children were being impacted in DC with schools that were not serving them well.

Brian McGrath: So many times people go, “Oh, they passed a program this year.” And everybody thinks that it all happened yesterday, and that was it. But you spent seven or eight years on sitting out there. What did it feel like when you finally won? And then you realized though, of course, you’ve got to go back and fight for again a couple years later. How do you do that?

Virginia Walden Ford: You know, it’s really funny because we actually won and people asked us often, “Yes it passed in the House by one vote.” The Senate passed it easier, but when it actually won, the program was implemented. I actually thought we were done. I said, “Oh good. I can go rest now. I don’t have to worry because the program’s started and parents are signing their kids up and getting involved,” and blah, blah, blah.

It never occurred to me we’d have to fight again. And somebody came to me and said, “You know, this program is only a five year program. In five years, you may have to fight again.” But in five years, it wasn’t a may. We had to fight again. And it was a hard fight and it’s been continual. You know something? I still don’t understand why it’s so hard to keep this program.

This program has educated over 11,000 children, children who would not have had the benefit of the best education possible were it not for the DC opportunity scholarship program. That should make it easy for people to support it. But it doesn’t. And so, continuing to fight, it still hurts me. It still bothers me. It still makes me angry. I’m not an angry person, but it makes me angry that we get programs that are wonderfully effective, that benefit kids and families.

In most of these school choice programs, if child is successful, it benefits the family and the community and everybody. And so why are we still fighting these fights? 20 years, 25 years ago almost, I would’ve said, “Okay, everything’s going to be better in a few years” And 25 years later, I’m still fighting, and around the nation.

So it’s troubling. It’s hard. It was hard then. It’s not easier now. And we still have a responsibility to the kids. So as long as people like me, and people here at EdChoice are fighting, then we know that the children will be protected to a certain extent. But we need everybody to fight. You know, these are children, and now I have grandchildren, and I want to fight for them.

My granddaughter in DC is actually on a scholarship. My daughter’s a single mother and her grandmother couldn’t help. I’m an activist. And so she has a scholarship to go to a private school, and has done really well, is on the honor society. And last semester, she made a four point. And she called and said, “You know I’ve been aiming for a four point.” She’s been making like 3.8, 3.9.

That’s who this is for. This is for children to call their grandparents and say, “I made a four point,” and you go and celebrate it. We need everything we can to celebrate with. But until people’s understanding of the fact that we are doing this for the children, not for politics, not for money, not for power, for children, then we’re going to be continuing to fight.

Brian McGrath: You mentioned earlier that when you started this, you were part of a rag tag group of people. And now the movement 25 years later, of course is much bigger and broader, but what have you seen? What are we missing, or where’s the gap in the movement now going forward, do you think, and what maybe have we gotten right?

Virginia Walden Ford: 25 years ago, we went into this as warriors, as soldiers. We were going to fight for our children. We were going to get it done. And for many years, parents continued to be warriors. And in the last few years, parents don’t seem to be as brought into the fight as warriors. And so I grow concerned about that. I want people to look at themselves and say, “I’m a soldier, I’m a warrior. I want to fight this battle.”

Robert and I have talked about this so many times. I mean, we were soldiers. We fought, and parents are sometimes not willing to do it. They’ll complain, but they won’t do it. But then they’re also not invited to do it as much as it used to be. And I think, I believe, that for us to continue to be successful in making a difference in the school choice movement is that we have to bring everybody. It has to be parents and everybody all together.

I believe greatly in coalitions. I believe that we have to have more than just the parents. I was pretty dumb, but I wasn’t so dumb that I didn’t realize that I didn’t have all the power to do this. I needed people to also embrace us and help us get through all the policy stuff. And what the heck is a bill? I mean, we didn’t know things like that. And I remember somebody handed us copy of the bill. I couldn’t even read the first paragraph. So we had to learn all those things. And there were people that were willing to come in and do that with us. And that was really important to us.

And I think somewhere along the way, we don’t see that anymore. I see it sporadically around the country where parents are really rallying hard and fighting hard. But in too many cases, I don’t. And at the beginning we were not respected well. I mean, we were used when they needed a group of parents on a newspaper or television. And I’m seeing that happen again. And I don’t want that to happen.

Parents have to be at the table. We are the first teachers of our children, and we are the ones that will fight the hardest. And that’s what I want to tell legislators. “You want somebody to fight, mess with somebody’s kid. They will fight.” And so I think we need to make sure that we’re incorporating all those things we did at the beginning, everybody working together, and respecting, and appreciating everybody’s opinion.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. It seems like the last year or so have unearthed a lot of new people who are all of a sudden really concerned about their kids’ education. Maybe they don’t like what they saw, or it seems to be a great opportunity for the choice movement. And I know you’re still traveling around the country, talking to parents. Or during the pandemic, you were zooming all over the country. What are you hearing? What are parents telling you that they’re most concerned with? Or why are they getting involved in this?

Virginia Walden Ford: Well, a lot of them are getting involved because they never had an opportunity to see exactly what their kids were doing in school. And once they were forced to be the teachers of their children, they realized two things. One, the children were not doing maybe as well as they thought. And two, they were going to have a lot of trouble helping them do as well as they are. So I think we’re back to everybody got work together.

I think that we’re seeing again what teachers invest in students for the most part. And so now we have a chance to have parents who have been with their kids for the last 18 months and have seen some things that they were lacking. But because they’re not trained teachers, they had a difficult time trying to help them with it.

So now we need the teachers again. We need everybody to come together. My son has master’s degree and he was teaching his three children. His wife’s a doctor so she was on the front line. So he was home with the kids and he called me one day and said, “You know, I don’t know nothing.” I went, “Excuse me.” And he said, “I’m serious.” His kids were fifth grade, third grade and kindergarten.

Brian McGrath: Oh, wow

Virginia Walden Ford: I know. And so he said, “You know what I should be teaching them, and what I know how to teach them are two different things.” And after a while the school came in and helped. But initially I think everybody was so shocked with what happened that they were trying to develop ways to help parents. So what our family did is everybody that was a teacher in our family. And there were a lot of them. We just helped each other. You know, we did zoom classes for my grandchildren and for a couple of my nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews. And that was a help, but everybody doesn’t have those kind of people in the family that are able to do that.

So I think what we’ve learned, once again, is something we’ve been trying to tell people for years, everybody has to come together. The cliche it takes a village to raise a child. I believe that so strongly. I believe it does take a village to raise a child. So everybody needs to be a part of what’s going forward now that we’re coming out of such a chaotic world.

You know, where do we go from here? We take programs that are in place. So much legislation has passed in ’21 that has to be implemented, has to be put into place. So we help. We don’t criticize, we help. And so I believe that that’s what we’ve got to do. We all got to work together. We all got to find a way to make sure that whatever the choices are, whatever the educational environments kids can benefit, that everybody has a part in making sure that that child gets.

Brian McGrath: So 25 years on, what do you think Dr. Friedman would think about where we are today? And if you had sort of one hope for the next 25 years in education, what do you think that might be?

Virginia Walden Ford: Well, I think Dr. Friedman would be thrilled with what has gone on in the last 25 years. I think he would be really proud of those that he trained, and the Friedman Foundation, EdChoice program. I think he would really be pleased, but I think he would say it’s not enough. And he would say to everybody what he said to me, “You keep fighting until you get to the place where you think this is enough.”

There’s so many things he told me that I think about all the time. So I think he’d be pleased, but I think he would want us to continue to move forward, continue to fight, and eventually get to that universal voucher. I think that it would give everybody, poor, urban, rural, everybody, an opportunity to invest in the future of this country by investing in children, by parents being able to make choices, and have the resources to make those choices for their children.

We know our kids. I know each one of my three, I know where they needed to be. And so do most parents, and even parents that don’t have a college degree, or some that don’t even have a high school diploma. We know who our children are. We know what their needs are, and we should be able to put them in educational environments to meet those needs. And I think that’s what he would continue to want. I think his passion for educational freedom through vouchers was right in place where it should be and should be today. And so I think he’d say, “Okay, y’all did okay. Y’all did well, but you got to keep going. You got to keep moving until America’s children are educated in freedom and liberty.”

Brian McGrath: Well, certainly we’re going to keep doing this fight with you, Virginia. We thank you for all the work you’ve done for the kids in DC and all over the country, and thanks for your help of EdChoice.

Virginia Walden Ford: Oh, you’re welcome.

Brian McGrath: And let’s keep doing it together.

Virginia Walden Ford: For sure. I’ll be here.

Brian McGrath: Great. Thanks, Virginia, for joining us today.

Virginia Walden Ford: Thank you for having me.